Hiring for Sales: Hunters vs. Farmers

The distinction between sales hunters and sales farmers is considered somewhat outdated these days, but when people want to hire a sales hunter, they generally mean someone who can prospect and generate leads – often through cold calls – and close deals. Hiring a sales farmer, on the other hand, generally means someone who can manage and grow existing accounts.


There are a lot of opinions out there on what makes a good sales hunter vs. a sales farmer. Let’s take a look at what the data tell us instead.

Promotion focus vs. prevention focus

Professors DeCarlo and Lam examined the personality differences between sales hunters and farmers. Specifically, they looked at whether salespeople were primarily motivated by a promotion focus (motivated to achieve a gain) or a prevention focus (motivated to avoid a loss).

Featured in the Harvard Business Review, research by Halvorson and Higgins nicely outline the differences between a promotion focus vs. a prevention focus.

Promotion focus: Pros

  • work quickly
  • creative – great at brainstorming
  • open to new opportunities and ideas
  • optimistic
  • willing to take risks

Promotion focus: Cons

  • lose steam without positive feedback
  • make more mistakes
  • unprepared when things go wrong

Prevention focus: Pros

  • work deliberately and carefully
  • tend to be more accurate
  • prepared for the worst
  • excellent analytical and problem-solving skills

Prevention focus: Cons

  • risk-averse
  • work slowly
  • stressed by tight deadlines
  • stick to tried-and-true methods – try to maintain status quo

What motivates sales hunters and sales farmers?

DeCarlo and Lam found promotion-focused salespeople were more likely to be sales hunters, whereas prevention-focused salespeople were more likely to be sales farmers.

One of the most useful insights from this research was that salespeople who could switch between a promotion focus and a prevention focus based on the selling context generated the most revenue.

Furthermore, the researchers found that sales leadership could encourage either a promotion or prevention focus in their salespeople by incentivizing gaining a win vs. avoiding a loss.


Another study by Honeycutt and colleagues found that sales hunters were most likely to leave a company due to compensation whereas sales farmers were more likely to leave due to long hours or a lack of advancement opportunities. Interestingly, sales farmers were also more likely to quit because of a long commute.


The takeaways

People are primarily motivated by promotion (getting a win) or prevention (avoiding a loss). Understanding someone’s dominant motivation can help you accurately identify what you should look for when hiring sales hunters (promotion-focused) vs. sales farmers (prevention-focused).

In practice, the distinction between a sales hunter and a sales farmer isn’t clearcut: a hunter still needs to be adept at building and managing relationships whereas a farmer still needs to be able to capitalize on new opportunities within existing accounts. And when you’re hiring salespeople for a startup, you don’t always have the luxury of making that distinction: often, you need to hire generalists (i.e., full-cycle salespeople).

Keeping in mind that someone can only have one motivational focus at a time, strategically hiring salespeople who can learn and adapt to a constantly changing selling environment is a massive win.

How do you hire a sales hunter vs. a sales farmer? Share your insights in the comments.

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Ji-A Min

Ji-A Min

Head Data Scientist at Ideal
Ji-A Min is the Head Data Scientist at Ideal. With a Master’s in Industrial-Organizational Psychology, Ji-A promotes best practices in data-based recruitment. She writes about research and trends in talent acquisition, recruitment tech, and people analytics.
Ji-A Min